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Based on the white hot media explosion over the recent confessions of cyclist Lance Armstrong, you’d think we, the “whatever-is-true-for-you-is-true” American people are both shocked and scandalized by lying.
Which would be pretty funny if it weren’t so hypocritical.
Watching Armstrong confess to lying about his use of performance enhancing drugs to Oprah, without much squirming, ought to be more of a chance for some collective humility than righteous indignation.
I suppose we can’t be sure that, as Armstrong said, pretty much “everybody” was doping during the years he won seven Tour de France races. But we can be sure of this much: Everybody lies. And that’s leaving out the charity “white” lies, like telling people they don’t look fat.
Yeah, I know. Armstrong’s premeditated, constant, aggressive lying was worse, for multiple reasons, than what we do pretty much every day. He made many millions from it. He threatened others who told the truth. He disgraced and undermined the credibility of cycling. He also brought shame on his cancer foundation, Livestrong.
In short, his lies damaged a lot of people. Ours, we say, are mostly harmless.
But at another level, telling ourselves we’re so much better than Armstrong is a bit like saying a guy who kills one person gets a pass because he didn’t fly a plane into the World Trade Center and slaughter more than 3,000 at once. There is an enormous difference of scale, but both acts are evil.
Beyond that, excusing “less damaging” lies is a good way to corrode what small level of trust still remains among us. Why do you suppose Congress is held in such low esteem? It is not just because we think those in whatever party we don’t like are a bunch of crooks and villains. It is because, deep down, we know we can’t trust any of them. We know even the ones we like are mostly telling us what we want to hear – not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Armstrong is just a more famous liar. He is part of, and the product of, a culture where lying is frequently celebrated (“Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies …”), generally excused, joked about and rarely taken seriously.
Indeed, we probably have more euphemisms for lies than Eskimos have terms for snow. And you only have a lot of words for something that is very, very common.
When public relations people or commentators lie, we call it “spin,” and nobody thinks another thing about it. When advertisers lie, we call it “puff.” When people lie on their resumes, we call it “exaggeration.” When members of the mob lie to protect others in their organization, we call it the “code of silence.” When cops lie about being sick because they’re unhappy with their contract negotiations, we all wink and call it the “blue flu.”
When those in politics lie to protect their bosses, we call it “loyalty.” If a candidate for office loses because he didn’t tell enough lies or make enough false promises, he is often criticized for refusing to “get his hands dirty,” as if lying is part of the honorable hard work of winning an election. After all, the point is to win. If you can’t win with the truth, what good is the truth?
You think maybe Lance Armstrong had the same idea? He just did whatever it took to win, which happened to include lying.
And when journalists lie in their stories and are caught, they will frequently defend it by saying their lies were told in the services of “a larger truth.”
That was essentially the defense Mike Daisey gave to National Public Radio’s “This American Life” host Ira Glass after he was exposed as fabricating numerous “facts” in a report about how Apple Inc.’s products were resulting in the abusive treatment of Chinese workers.
Daisey argued that his mistake was to present the report as journalism, when it should have been presented as “theater … to achieve its dramatic arc.”
Yes, yes. The dramatic arc is so much more important than the truth.
Lying has become institutionalized. School honor rolls, which a few decades ago included maybe 15 to 20 percent of students, now regularly include 75 percent of them. Do we really believe the absurdity that, “all of our children are above average”?
You can even see it in the recent appearance of outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who pounded the table this past week before a Senate committee investigating the attack of the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi that resulted in the murder of four Americans, including the ambassador.
“At this point, what difference does it make …?” Clinton raged, about whether lies were told about the attack, when the only thing that should matter is that four Americans are dead.
Sounds so patriotic, doesn’t it? But it’s a distraction. Look over there at the dead people! Just ignore the political interest of the Obama administration in pushing the lie that it was not a planned terrorist attack. After all, the point of those lies was to ensure his reelection. Now that he’s reelected, what’s the point of even bringing it up?
It’s just that, back in the days of Watergate, Clinton wasn’t thinking that way. But then, those were Republican lies, and these are Democratic lies.
I guess that’s the larger truth.
Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org